Sunday, June 30, 2013

Go, Mutants!

           Okay, so, the rundown is as follows: This is a book that is at times funny, and at times very clever. It's a good look at being a teenager and at the same time being a monster, and while the metaphor for puberty and understanding one's body is a little heavy-handed, I can't say it's exactly un-clever, either. The book's a teen comedy that turns very weird, and I can't say I don't get behind that, especially with the kind of stuff I read, and my love of retro-future and B-movies. It's clear that Larry Doyle has a clear interest in a lot of the culture, and he loves both his audience and the world he's created. Add to this some very good narrative voice and some incredible imagery, and you have a book well worth the read. 

              The problem is, this is a book for a very specific audience, and when it misses, it misses pretty badly. The tone gets really in-jokey at times, bringing famous monsters and concepts in with nary a thought, and while most of them actually work, occasionally they wind up being more "Really? You put that in there?" Apart from the self-conscious referencing, I felt there were a few gags that needed to have a payoff but...didn't (The one involving The Brain Who Wouldn't Die as a reference in particular). Overall, though, this is a great book, one I'd suggest reading as soon as you can get it out of the library.

More, as always, below.

"I come in peace." *beat* "A bit awkward. Is this a bad time?"
- Andi Ra'

            It comes as no great surprise to any regular readers (all four of you) that I am something of a B-movie and horror movie fanatic. It's something I've had with me since an early age, when I dutifully sat down in front of the TV and watched the WPIX Saturday Afternoon Movie (Giving a little of my location away when I say that. Ah, well, the network had a decent coverage). I was raised, even, on a steady diet of black-and-white horror flicks that never failed to both freak me out and fascinate me. And to this day, I still hold a soft spot for those movies and their offspring. And so, one day when I looked through the public library, I happened upon a copy of Go Mutants, and immediately I was intrigued.

             Well, okay, first I had to read the jacket flap to make sure it was the sort of book I thought it was. But then I was intrigued. The book created a weird mix of film references, snarky self-referential humor, and  a pretty good insight into being a teenager and having weird issues with a changing body and issues you no longer quite understand. It also kept a lot of the same beats as the films, which is something essential to the process. In short, as I read this book, I found myself actually wishing I could write something like it. And while that definitely informs my bias, the book being written for someone like me, I have to say I liked what Larry Doyle has done.

                Go, Mutants! is about J!m Anderson, a big-brained blue alien who was the son of a would-be conqueror of Earth, Andi Ra. And if the combined bad feelings of having both a father who is responsible for most of the destruction of the earth and a hot cat-person mother wasn't all, J!m is shedding his skin on a regular basis and an outcast at school. His only friends are the girl next door, a radioactive half man half-ape, and a large sentient blob trying very hard to pose as a fat kid. He spends his time listening to rock over the "domes", a device sort of like futuristic headphones, and working at the local drive-in theater while dreaming of the movies he wants to make. While he's hassled by the local sheriff's kid and tormented by children singing nursery rhymes about the death of his father ("It looked just like Chow Mein!"), he tends to get by okay.

And then things get weird. 

                 J!m's body is going through its final stages of puberty, causing "brainstorms" that may be fatal to his health. The local human boys get rougher than normal and their teasing may be turning a little vicious and possibly fatal. But no one can predict what happens when J!m finally emerges from puberty, throwing the lives of friend and enemy alike into chaos. 

              I think the thing I like the most about this (and this seems to be a theme this month. Shhhhh) is the atmosphere behind it. Doyle captures some of the 50s and 60s teenage monster movie feel, but somehow makes it not feel too hokey. While it may not have much of the stylings of the actual decade behind it, Go, Mutants! doesn't need to. Instead, it hits all the pop culture notes, things that people would remember from the movies and even the movies at the time. While this may normally lend itself to a certain artificial quality, it actually helps to familiarize the setting-- One can tell where it takes place because one has all the right visual references. It creates a very odd but believable setting where things like radioactive biker apes and a gigantic firebreathing lizard running for public office are things that could feasibly exist. It's colorful, a kind of odd cross between old sitcom and old monster movie, with some bizarre modern touches here and there (the nightclub where J!m's mom waitresses, for example). Overall, the setting handles most of the load, and while it's shorthand, it's at least shorthand that works.

                Doyle populates his book with interesting characters, as well. J!m is suitably surly, and since we see most of his difficulties through his eyes, at least somewhat relatable. The villains are harmless until the end of the story, where they suddenly pull out the big guns and kick off the last bit of the conflict. The one weak character seems to be Marie, who while a POV character for a bit in her own way is kind of less an effective heroine and more someone whom the plot happens around. While this is true to the source material, it does kind of suck for Marie. And I know, time period appropriacy and all that, but still, give her some knowledge, some idea of what's going on...something. Larry "Jelly" Sweeney (the blob monster...he's adopted), and Johnny Love (the biker ape) are given wonderful characterization, as well as just about all the supporting cast, so the Marie issue is a little more glaring.

                  And in a book like this, that there's a glaring issue stands out, but isn't too terrible. The book knows its audience and handles its subject matter with gentle (if occasionally dark) humor. At the center of the book is a narrative voice that is warm, friendly, and has a lot of heart. And that Doyle knows his way around a joke helps immensely. He handles the subject matter and dialogue with a lot of wit, and knows his way around a joke. One in particular took a long time to build, but when it finally got where it was going, it was well-received. Also, the alien invader learning his humor and english from British comedies was a nice touch. Even if it did make me want to see a movie with Stephen Fry playing Andi Ra'. And then get disappointed because in all likelihood, that wouldn't happen.

                      But despite its nature of being steeped in nostalgia and the like (or in spite of), there were some issues with the book I have to address. While I liked a lot of the in-jokes, the book did get too in-jokey at times, mentioning references from Day of the Triffids or It Conquered the World just seemingly to keep in the setting, not for much of a real purpose. While this creates a fun game of spotting references in the work, and trying to figure out what came from where, it does detract from the story. Also, while I was pleasantly surprised by the climax, I felt like things were wrapped up in kind of a weird way. It fit the setting and all, but it just felt kind of odd to me. And again, I wish Marie had more characterization than being the one normal human being in the story. Yes, she was needed as a rock and a safe spot to anchor things, but, and this is something I find myself repeating, not every story needs an audience surrogate. 

                 In the end, however, it's charming. Go, Mutants! knows its audience and how to play to them, and while that audience isn't everyone, it's an audience that I happen to be part of. The book pulls itself off with relative grace, and it's well worth the read. Take this one out of the library, it's not a classic, but since this is summer and the book is relatively light fun, I'd say read it as soon as you can. 


Pop Hits of the Showa Era by Ryu Murakami

Everyone Loves You When You're Dead by Neil Strauss

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